File photo – The Dubai International Cricket Stadium began to rock as the sun began to set over the city on PSL opening night © Getty Images
Shahid Afridi looked anxious as he stepped out of the team bus in the early evening light of Thursday. And why not – this was a special occasion in his career. Not just his. The inaugural Pakistan Super League was about to begin. All of Pakistan was waiting in expectation. Afridi and Pakistan needn’t have worried, though.
A couple of steps away from Afridi, a young boy was shrieking in delight. This youngster could not believe he was at arm’s length from Pakistan’s most popular modern-day cricketer. Such episodes are what make and sell franchise-based sport: access and intimacy with your idols, favourite players and heroes.
If there was any apprehension about whether fans would turn up at all, it was immediately forgotten as the queues started to build up four hours before the start time. By the time the five team buses snaked their way into the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, as the sun set on Dubai, there was a huge din in and around the ground.
Inside, the stadium had descended into a choreographed darkness. Cleverly the organisers had left LED wrist bands for the fans to wear. Soon those LEDs on the wrists blinked different colours resembling the jersey colours of the five franchises. And then the music started. Like gleaming ocean waters on a full-moon night, those LEDs on the wrists and the empty seats danced dazzlingly.
It was an electric atmosphere by now, with the 26,000 capacity stadium 60% full. And the din inside had already made those waiting outside eager and anxious. Like avid movie-goers, no one wanted to miss even the trailers. Boys, girls, teenagers, men, women, grandparents, families, parents pushing pushchairs, fathers swaddling babies… everyone made their way to their seats, keen to see the spectacle.
Franchise cricket encourages loyalty towards your team and, as the five captains lead their contingents onto the ground, the crowd reserved their loudest cheers for their respective regions. Shoaib Malik and Misbah-ul-Haq got handsome cheers from the crowds as they led the Karachi Kings and Islamabad United out, but the loudest, craziest shrieks were reserved for Pehshawar Zalmi. Afridi, who entered the ground with his trademark star-pose, waved both hands to acknowledge the support of his fans.
The crowd erupted once again when the “world boss” Chris Gayle joined his Jamaican countryman Sean Paul, the rapper, on the stage, along with fellow Caribbean players in the league – Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy – to shake a leg. Even the rock called Misbah moved rhythmically as he clapped and nodded his head as Pakistani singer Ali Zafar sang the PSL’s anthem – Ab Khel Ke Dikha (Show Me How You Play).
Among the crowd was a special set of 146 that had been flown in on Thursday by Javed Afridi, Zalmi’s owner. The group comprised students and teachers of the Army Public School in Peshawar, which had been attacked by the Taliban in 2014. Lead by their teachers and the school principal, the students – dressed in their school attire – enjoyed the evening out.
According to the school coordinator, Zalmi’s gesture was bigger than just benevolence. Sport is a great healer and the for the young minds who had witnessed the brutal attacks on their friends from close quarters, being part of a festive atmosphere like the PSL could have a significant and positive impact psychologically.
The PSL has been a longstanding dream for Pakistan cricketers. At the trophy unveiling on Wednesday afternoon, the tension was palpable on the faces of all five captains. Forced to play cricket away from their home, forced to sit out of the IPL, both the players and their fans have been left hungry and frustrated.
Salman Sarwar Butt, one of the main architects of the PSL, told the five franchises during an address on the eve of the tournament that he and his management team had done all the hard work. “‘Now it was for you guys to go and fight hard. We have done what we could.’ I told them it was in their hands to make PSL a success,” Butt says.
He might have just said: Ab khel ke dikha.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo